What I want to focus on here, bearing in mind the importance of not separating feminism from anti-racist and other anti-oppression struggles, is one aspect (socialization) of Mitchell’s four-part structure and plan for a women’s liberation movement worthy of the name (recall: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialization). Although Mitchell’s article was published more than half a century ago, it remains an utterly clear account of the themes and challenges that confront feminism in the twenty-first century.
So, what is socialization today? How does it relate to feminism and what we might call a ‘feminist counter-power’ recognizable in the global marches, strikes and protests?
The socialization of girls and boys is a matter of great anxiety for parents and teachers alike, and it is made all the more difficult in the face of the all-pervasive presence of advertising, gender stereotypes, images of ‘beautiful’ people, and the social pressure to conform to particular roles and norms on the basis of sex.
Pink girls aisle at US store
It strikes me, as someone who grew up in the 1980s and was a teenager in the 1990s, that the pressure to conform to gender roles and stereotypes has grown exponentially. I remember very few ‘pink’ objects in my childhood, although there were of course dolls and kitchen sets, but refusing them in favour of much more interesting toys and books was much more of an option than it seems to be now.
Cynically, we might say that ‘gender’ is merely a symptom of the market, which can profit by promoting gender stereotypes. Certainly, this has to be part of it. But I also think something has been lost, and what we lost, or are losing, was actually a feminist victory, and one of the great successes of the ‘second wave’.
By analysing the way in which gender was imposed on those bodies sexed as male and female, second-wave feminism made it possible to break with the idea that sex determined gender. In other words, that, while biology is a fact, the expectations and impositions placed on bodies called ‘male’ and ‘female’ were wholly social, and, as such, could be changed. Girls and boys could and should like whatever they like, wear whatever they want, play however they want.
This idea is very clearly revolutionary, as it suggests that girls can refuse to be decorative, submissive and so on, and boys can refuse to be aggressive and domineering. It means, in principle, that boys and girls can grow up to work in whichever job they like, have whatever hobbies they like, be whoever they like.
The fact that this feminist idea had so filtered down to become something of a common thought and practice makes it a key example of feminist counter-power and a genuine shift towards the liberation from gender stereotypes.
Socialization is a very hard thing to shift, however, and for every feminist victory there is an extreme pushback
Socialization is a very hard thing to shift, however, and for every feminist victory there is an extreme pushback, as we have witnessed in recent years, for example, where gender stereotypes seem to be pushed on us at every turn.
Upsetting as it is to realise, the way girls and women are still socialized into making sure men’s feelings aren’t hurt, and into trying to smooth over difficult social situations, surely contributed to the very slow process of exposing male abuse under the #metoo movement. Not wanting to be seen as ‘difficult’ makes it harder for girls and women to stand up against harassment.
Similarly, boys and men being encouraged to feel entitled to women’s time and affection, even where it is clearly unwanted, is still a more-or-less ubiquitous dimension of masculinity. Those men and women who break with these gendered norms are often punished for it with ostracism, threats and violence. But we should stand up for ‘masculine’ women and ‘feminine’ men, with a view to eventually de-gendering likes, hobbies and employment.
So, how do we collectively organize against the harm done to women? Although men are also often very violent to each other, feminism’s focus must primarily be on the rights and protection of girls and women. And, lest we believe that straight abusive men don’t know who they’re targeting, they do not, as many have pointed out, attempt the same things with men. They know very well what it is to target women on the basis of sex, and will often use physical and social intimidation (threats) to coerce and manipulate women into compliance.
#metoo founder Tarana Burke leaves survivor march in Los Angeles. Photo credit: https://lasentinel.net
I think it is important to note that feminism does not see women as victims, but precisely the opposite, despite cries in some quarters that #metoo is an attempt to reduce women to passive, desire-less beings. On the contrary, it is feminism that sees an end to the sex-based victimization of girls and women, so that they may live more freely, and be sexual beings on their own terms.
What #metoo has done is to make explicit the global ubiquity of men’s sexual harassment and abuse of women. There is a sense of enormous solidarity in the campaign, a collective undermining of the shame women are taught to internalize whenever something unwanted happens to them.
Where men were shocked, perhaps some of them will remain awake to the reality of many men’s attitudes to and treatment of women. Perhaps some of them will intervene to stop it in their lives and when they see it happening (though, of course, much harassment is deliberately done precisely where no-one else is there to see it). It could change workplaces as much as anti-sexual harassment legislation ever did.
The sheer scale of abuse, and the attempts to blackmail, sue and manipulate women into keeping quiet explain a great deal of female silence and acquiescence – you will be crushed if you reveal it.
But no more.
Everything that damages women, that restricts their freedom, can be stopped with feminist counter-power – and all the many different forms this takes. Female foeticide, forced marriage, rape, sexual assault and everyday sexism can all be stopped. If we can imagine an end to something, we can also imagine how it is we might get there.